The process of preparing for this General Conference has been somewhat unique. While the top elected clergy and layperson serve on the quadrennium-long Committee on Episcopacy, most of us who serve on the North Georgia delegation assumed that our work would be done following the 2016 General Conference. The reality of the special called session, and the related decision from the North Georgia Conference to decline to reengage the election process and thereby send the 2016 delegates to the 2019 conference, meant that it was time to get the band back together.
Delegates do not just show up at General Conference without having spent a significant time in preparation. Each conference has its nuances, but all delegations spend significant time meeting, discussing, and praying about the work that will happen at General Conference. North Georgia, thankfully, takes the work of preparation very seriously, and so in addition to monthly day-long Saturday meetings in preparation for the 2016 conference, we have met regularly for similarly lengthy meetings in the days leading up to the 2019 conference.
The meetings preparing for 2019, I think, have been especially meaningful. Besides times of community-building, which is important, the delegation has engaged in meaningful conversation about where the denomination is headed, how our local churches are reacting, and how to hold onto a meaningful, just unity in the face of divisive forces. I am grateful to the chair of our delegation, Mathew Pinson, who brought in Ellen Ott Marshall, professor of Christian Ethics and Conflict Transformation at the Candler School of Theology, and the Rev. Hal Jones, President and CEO of the United Methodist Children's Home, both of whom have extensive experience in group dynamics and conflict transformation. While just about everybody on the delegation has strong feelings about all that has brought us to 2019, framing our time together around transformation--together--has been key.
On the personal front, the preparation has involved a lot of reading and praying. I have read summaries, of course, but I also feel that I have a responsibility to be familiar with the intricacies of each plan and petition, so the Advance Daily Christian Advocate (ADCA) has been a continual companion recently. The ADCA is well over 200 pages, with more than 100 pages detailing legislation and supplemental material.
What's more, the complicated nature of what the church is attempting to do at the 2019 conference means that reading the plans (as lengthy as they are) is not enough. There are constitutional implications, as the Judicial Council has noted, so I've been re-familiarizing myself with the Constitution of the United Methodist Church. There are, likewise, groups lobbying for various plans, and there is legislative strategy flying about related to how plans are rolled out. I've been in conversation with friends and colleagues across the connection about all that is to come. These relationships--all around the world--have been invaluable, as they have helped me broaden my perspective and helped me to see implications for the outcome of the 2019 conference beyond my own home conference.
Let me share just two more interesting dynamics about what preparation for this conference looks like. First, I've spent a significant time preparing my primary appointment, Decatur First UMC, for the conference. As a church with a diversity of viewpoints--but one which sits in an area known for its high population of LGBTQ persons--it has been an interesting season. I am really grateful to be serving such supportive churches (including North Decatur UMC) at this time, but I will be honest in saying that it has been particularly difficult preparing the churches I serve, because I am honestly not sure what I am preparing them for. We all know what plans are on the table, but we also know that the plans can (likely will) be amended, and so whatever emerges from the 2019 conference will certainly not look exactly like anything in the ADCA.
Second, it has been an interesting experience being on the receiving end of any number of emails from people in North Georgia who want the delegation to know that they support the Traditionalist plan and the "gracious exit' provision. I probably get four a day. Thankfully, most of these emails have been civil. I have noticed that much of the communication I receive comes from a small number of churches. What's more, I have received a number of emails that have been sent to only the voting delegates who will be present at General Conference (i.e. excluding those who will not be present). I find this dynamic fascinating, as--to my knowledge--there is no public document that lists only those who will be present. Until blogging and preaching a few days ago, I had not publicly shared that I would be a voting delegate. Only communication within the delegation has listed who would be going to St. Louis and who would not. The only conclusion I can come up with is that someone within the delegation has been involved in encouraging laypeople in North Georgia to contact the voting delegates with this particular message; to my knowledge, no one else has had the list but the members themselves. Of course it is well within the rights of folks within the delegation to share this information--and it is certainly no state secret that I'll be serving in this way!--but these specific dynamics help me understand the inspiration behind the email onslaught to be less-than-grassroots.
So, that's what the preparation has looked like. It takes a long, long time to be prepared for General Conference, and that's on top of--you know--the regular pastoral load. I'll be blogging more about the plans themselves in the days ahead. Stay tuned. And keep praying that God's will may be done.
Less than three weeks until General Conference